How to Create an Eerie Mood in Fiction

Edgar Allan Poe said, “A short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build towards it.”  If ever a writer lived who captured a story’s mood in every line, it was Edgar.  He twisted the reader’s emotions into a perfect knot, and just when you thought he’d give your heart reprieve, he buried it under the floor.

As a ninth-grader, I remember my first experience with Edgar.  I stood at my seat in freshman English class reading aloud the lines of Annabel Lee.  A darkness resided within each word and syllable,  a mood of foreboding and dreariness.  Poe established mood like clouds establish rain, picking up steam drop by drop until the sharp tingle falls in torrents.

In short fiction, each and every sentence holds a key to the door of your reader’s mood.

Eerie Mood Tip # 1:

Characterization. Make your characters creepy, haunting, or otherwise insane, and your story’s mood will follow suit.

When considering mood through characterization, think of The Addams Family.  In the television show, the offbeat family is oblivious to how different they are from the normal world.  In fact, they have a hand in a box for a pet.  They’re the epitome of irregularity, a grand recipe for eerie fiction.

The Addams Family lends itself to a sort of dark humor.  The daughter cuts the heads from dolls; the uncle electrocutes himself for sport; the butler moans and stomps about the home with sallow skin and an expressionless visage.  The cast is an ensemble of eerie misfits, a crew of frightening players.

Use deranged characters like these in your narrative to fuel your reader’s sleepless night.

Eerie Mood Tip # 2:

Setting. Bring your setting to life, and unsettle your reader’s mood.

In Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, a dark mansion resides within an ominous tapestry of broken nature.  The opening paragraph paints an ugly collage of decaying foliage, ghastly tree-stems, and vacant eye-like windows, the setting itself living and breathing, just another character in Edgar’s eerie tale of lineage and the grave.

Let your character’s surroundings reflect uncertainties and apprehensions.  When a character fears the dark, let the dark become a personified extension of that fear, the trees reaching out with clawing hands, the moon staring as a sickening eye.  Let every piece of the land, air, and sea become the character’s inner-turmoil, a mirror of his worsening situation.

Make the room itself cry before the character sheds a single tear.

Eerie Mood Tip # 3:

Plot. Make awful things happen from nowhere.

Characters should never be at ease, and events should occur in an unanticipated manner.  When the character opens a door, let the reader believe its entry spells certain doom or nothing at all.  Suspense and foreshadowing are the tools of an eerie plot, a mystery that floods the reader in a dark sea with questions like, “What will happen, and to whom?”

The writer should make unexpected events occur, all the while planting clues and distractions to open a multitude of possibilities for the reader.  This see-saw of dark wonder takes the reader up, an adrenaline rush of narrow escape, and down, a thumping heart that pounds and throbs in anticipation.  Give your reader thrills and chills with intermittent downtime, just to start anew on the following page.

Leave both the character and the reader alone in the dark to see how it all turns out.

Eerie Mood Tip # 4:

Diction (Word Choice). Choose your words carefully, each one adding to the feeling of dread.

Writing the perfect sentence requires thought and intentionality.  Each word, each syllable, each letter should render a collective effect, one that embodies the desired mood.  Never let your characters “yell with force” when they can “scream bloody murder.”  Write with purpose, and allow each sentence to advance the eerie mood.

Mark Twain said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

When creating an eerie mood, use puns and double meanings to keep your reader anxious and guessing.  In The Cask of Amontillado, Montressor hands Fortunato a “Flagon of de Grave,” a wine whose translation means “The Grave.”  In the next scene, Fortunato buries Montressor in the wall behind his family catacombs.

Assemble words with such eerie specificity that the reader is unnerved and terrified by the end of every line.

The Final Nail.

Like Edgar Allan Poe, capture your reader’s heart with an eerie mood, and just when the eye opens widest, flip him screaming from the bed.  Readers love that sort of thing.

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How Do I Make My Characters Fall In Love?

Over the weekend, my wife and I watched the Ant-Man movie.  In the midst of cheesy one-liners, supercharged CGI, and Stan Lee cameos, I found myself thinking about “love” and how it often plays out on screen and in print.  With the intent of avoiding spoilers, let’s just say that Ant-Man, like nearly every superhero, has a love interest in the film … and it just doesn’t work.

Don’t get me wrong.  “Love” as a thematic concept is excellent, and when written correctly, it adds a dynamic to storytelling that is impossible to accomplish through any other means.  The problem with Ant-Man, and many stories like it, is that “love” is forced, and the narrative isn’t improved by its inclusion.

Knowing that love interests are often overdone in writing, it’s difficult for writers to determine how and when to develop feelings of love between characters.  The first question to ask before characters fall in love is…

Does the Story Need the Characters to Fall in Love?

Failure to answer this question is the single greatest reason why “love” often fails in fiction.  In the race to keep the reader attentive, writers use many tricks and strategies to evoke an emotional response.  Unfortunately, this sometimes means making characters fall in love, even when the story doesn’t need it or isn’t moving in that direction.

Characters should fall in love if…

  1. Plot events are intentionally moving in that direction.
  2. Character dynamic is improved in making the match.

Notice that characters should not fall in love for the sake of love itself.  If falling in love enhances the plot or improves character dynamic (the interaction between characters), there are several “tried and true” methods for turning up the heat on character relationships.

Childhood Friends.

Childhood is a magical time in the lives of characters.  It’s a time when physical and emotional changes occur that impact the characters’ attitudes, relationships, and stability throughout the entire narrative.  Use this crucial time frame to give your protagonist a childhood friend.  This friend should grow with the protagonist and share in his/her childhood triumphs and challenges.  In adulthood, this relationship may transform into a believable love, strengthened by mutual life experiences.

Shared Tragedy.

Tragedy produces extreme emotional responses from characters, which makes it an ideal device for building relationships.  Character flaws and weaknesses are exposed during times of turmoil and tragedy.  If characters undergo a tragedy together, they share a unique experience that can strengthen their physical, emotional, and spiritual connection.  The tragedy can take place on a small scale (the death of a loved one) or a large scale (the death of the entire human race), depending on the needs of the story.

Opposites Attract.

Characters with opposing qualities can be written into interesting situations.  If one character smokes and the other does not, the two characters may argue or disagree in dialogue, promoting the possibility that interactions could move into flirtation or a crush.  With opposing characters, it’s easy to force a relationship, but it’s important to allow one to evolve naturally.  Allow your characters to be gently converted to the other’s way of thinking before sealing the deal with a steady relationship.

Isolated Together.

When characters spend an exorbitant amount of time “alone together,” this creates a reliance on the person they are alone with.  In these situations, the writer should allow the characters to develop trust for one another, a virtue that may lead to a more meaningful relationship.  This tactic is especially effective when combined with a shared tragedy (e.g. the characters find themselves stranded together in an isolated region and forced to spend large amounts of time relying on each other for survival).

Conclusion.

Even though fiction is fiction, there must be a certain amount of truth to help the reader suspend disbelief.  If Ant-Man needs to fall in love, the reader better believe it’s possible and necessary.  Fictional love is like real love in that way.

How to Establish Conflict in a Story

When I taught middle school English, I told my students, “If your story is about your character’s trip to the grocery store, he better break his leg, make an important decision, run from a tornado, or fist fight the manager.”  This was an exaggeration, but it made the students consider conflict, one of the key aspects of successful and interesting storytelling.

So, what exactly is conflict?

Conflict is a plot device that creates tension within and between a story’s characters.  All the critical pieces of a story’s plot stem from the central conflict. For example, if the protagonist loves his best friend’s girlfriend, the story may involve the protagonist’s relationship with the girl, which in turn will create both internal conflict (the fear of betraying his friend) and external conflict (the act of fighting or arguing with his friend over the girl).

There are four primary types of conflict within stories, and when leveraged properly, adding these elements increases both tension and interest.

Character vs. Character.

In this type of conflict, one character opposes another character.  This is the tale of two characters who actively try to prevent one another from doing something he/she wants to do.  Famous examples include:

Dorothy vs. The Wicked Witch (The Wonderful Wizard of Oz)
Harry Potter vs. Voldemort (Harry Potter series)
Montresor vs. Fortunato (The Cask of Amontillado)

Use It: To increase effectiveness when using this type of conflict, writers should focus on creating foil characters (characters who contrast one another in order to emphasize particular qualities in the other character).  For example, notice how Dorothy is both physically and emotionally different from The Wicked Witch, a tactic the writer uses to highlight the witch’s unattractiveness and emotional instability.  Try this exercise:

Exercise: Create two characters who are polar opposites.  Place them in a situation where they both want the same thing, but one must stop the other in order to succeed.  Focus on external conflicts through dialogue and physical interaction, as well as internal conflicts through the characters’ emotional responses to one another.

Character vs. Nature.

In this type of conflict, the character suffers immediate danger from an act of nature.  This is the traditional survival story, a character pitted against the elements of God.  Notable examples include:

“The Odyssey” by Homer
“The Old Man and the Sea” by Ernest Hemingway
“Leiningen Versus the Ants” by Carl Stephenson

Use It: Although the character may battle external circumstances (e.g. starvation, killer army ants, the sea, etc.), the writer should delve into the character’s psyche, illustrating how the character internally struggles as a result of his/her battle with nature.  Additional attention should be turned toward the physical devastation that occurs as a result of the external conflict.  Try this:

Exercise: Create a situation where a character is lost and only has one bottle of water in his backpack.  Focus on the character’s external response to potentially dying of thirst, as well as the internal struggle associated with rationing the final resource.

Character vs. Society.

In this type of conflict, the character deals with a law or perception that hinders personal interests.  This conflict often makes commentary on real, imagined, or exaggerated political and societal issues.  Well-known examples include:

“The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins
“Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain
“1984” by George Orwell

Use It: This conflict is enhanced when the writer places a unique spin on a trending societal issue.  Mark Twain took on the issue of racism, and George Orwell took on the issue of governmental tyranny.  To excel with this type of conflict, a writer must identify a societal issue and write a story that offers commentary on the issue’s long-term effects.  Give this a try:

Exercise: Create a story where an ethnically diverse character struggles with integration into a predominately single-race classroom.  Focus on the external conflicts that arise between characters of different cultures as well as the internal conflict of isolation.

Character vs. Self.

In this type of conflict, the character struggles internally with a personal decision or fatal flaw.  The conflict is often explored through inner-monologues where the character debates repercussions that may ensue if a particular decision is made.  Internal traits such as self-perception and mental stability often factor into the character’s struggle.  Recognized examples include:

Hamlet (The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark)
Charlie Gordon (Flowers for Algernon)
Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird)

Use It: This type of conflict is improved by allowing the character ample time for introspection.  In other words, illustrate your character’s thought process, especially as it pertains to potential outcomes related to the character’s big decision.  Additional attention should be given to the external conflicts that arise as a result of the character making the big decision or exercising a fatal flaw.  Here’s an exercise to try:

Exercise: Create a situation where a character must decide between his own well-being or the safety of others.  Focus on the external conflict of the main character contending with the opinions of other characters, as well as the internal conflict associated with making a choice of self-sacrifice.

Conclusion.

Without conflict, characters exhibit unrealistic contentment.  Let them struggle so that they are made human by overcoming adversity.

How to Write the First Sentence

Like many writers, I spend lots of time in the bookstore. While there, I peruse the Best Sellers shelf, reading the first sentence of several works to see which ones catch my interest.  Most opening sentences are well-written and imaginative, but sometimes a dud slips through (even on the Best Sellers list).

Why does the first sentence matter?

The trouble is that a poorly executed first line often leads to a clunky opening paragraph.  Readers will skim an opening chapter, but unless you’re a dead literary genius, it’s unlikely you’ll get the benefit of the doubt if your opening line stinks.

Here’s how you can keep your reader’s attention from the very first line:

Tip # 1: Begin with a vivid image.

Reflect upon your favorite work of fiction.  Do you see words on a page or a living, thriving landscape?  Most of us remember the images created by a great work rather than actual words printed on a page.  In Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, the first sentence reads:

A screaming comes across the sky.

Right away, the reader is left with a vivid auditory and visual sense of the scene.  In a few short words, the writer creates a lingering image that simultaneously produces urgency while also building conflict and suspense.

Tip # 2: Begin with the story’s “hook.”

Works commonly possess a “hook” (something specific to the story’s theme, setting, plot, or characters that makes it unique from other works).  For example, a science fiction work might focus on a new and interesting interplanetary species, or a horror story might delve into the effects of a growing apocalyptic disease.  In the opening line of Invisible Man, Ralph Waldo Emerson simply wrote:

I am an invisible man.

Nothing flashy, just plain old stating the story’s “hook,” which involves a man who cannot be seen.  The intention of this approach is to immediately connect the reader with the overarching plot elements associated with the story.  An added bonus to starting in this manner is that it provides the writer with a plot direction for the remainder of the first page.

Tip # 3: Begin with a unique voice.

Stories live and die by their characters.  For this reason, each character must possess a unique voice to set them apart from other characters.  This can be accomplished by odd speech patterns or idiosyncrasies demonstrated during narration or dialogue.  J.D. Salinger’s protagonist in The Catcher in the Rye started like this:

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.

The sentence is long, but it does an excellent job of introducing a unique voice, one that uses phrases like “if you want to know the truth” and “if you really want to hear about it” to create a linguistically rich experience for the reader.

Tip # 4: Begin with shock and awe.

Sometimes the reader needs a little jolt to entice further reading.  By providing a shocking statement or revelation, the writer creates a sense of wonder that will cause the reader to continue reading (sometimes just to see if the writer actually has a plan for how it’s all going to turn out).  In The Crow Road, Iain M. Banks delivers this first line:

It was the day my grandmother exploded.

Why did his grandmother explode?  By starting the narrative in this fashion, the writer earns a few precious seconds of the reader’s time, maybe just enough to hook the reader through the remainder of the scene (or maybe even through the entire work).

Tip # 5: Begin with a bizarre setting.

Just like “shock and awe,” it sometimes benefits a writer to start with a bizarre setting, something that makes the reader both curious and anxious.  The trick is to make sure the narrative actually supports the bizarre setting (i.e. If your story begins in a swamp filled with goat cheese and banana nut bread, there better be a compelling reason).  In I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith started the story like this:

I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.

With an introduction like that, the writer is guaranteed to provoke another couple sentences or even paragraphs from the reader.  Remember, the bizarre setting should be a purposeful setup (not a gimmick), but if used correctly, the strategy gains the reader’s attention and also provides a framework for interesting events following the opener.

Conclusion.

The opening sentence is your greeting to the reader, a gateway into your story’s world.  Motivate your reader to peek inside, then slam the door behind them.

You Can Make It As a Writer

If someone knew the all-powerful success formula for writing, there wouldn’t be so many starving artists and famished freelancers in the world.  Sure, there’s good writing information out there, but writing advice is hindered by the same issues that plague “weight loss” advice.  Everyone knows you have to eat right and exercise to lose weight, and everyone knows you have to write to be a writer.  No one wants to do it because it takes too long and it’s too hard.

Change your mind, and you can make it as a writer.

Some say that writing is easy.  All you need is a piece of paper, a pen, and an idea so charged with electricity it’ll blow your hand off.  It’s easy like freezing in the sun or getting struck by thunder.  As Ernest Hemingway famously noted:

There is nothing to writing.  All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.

There are four qualities you must possess to make it as a writer.  You don’t actually have to bleed, but you certainly must try.

Tenacity (Grit).

If you have grit, you can make it as a writer.  You will be rejected, you will be criticized, and you will fail many times before you succeed.  No other job comes with such uncertainty, but nonetheless, the writer must keep on keeping on.  When your fifty-third manuscript is rejected, you must take a nap, eat a sandwich, and get to work on draft fifty-four.  Dr. Angela Duckworth, a leading psychology researcher says:

Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day-in, day-out.

It’s not enough to crave success on days when you’re hungry for it; you must also crave it on a full stomach.  Write every day, edit every day, submit every day, fail every day.  It’s the only way you’ll ever succeed.

Teachability.

If you are teachable, you can make it as a writer.  We all expect a new doctor to be as knowledgeable as anyone with a medical license, but when we go in for brain surgery, we don’t look for the scrawny kid with a smooth face and a full head of hair; we look for the wrinkled bald man with wisdom and experience sprouting from his nose hairs.  As with new doctors, freshly minted “writers” have much to learn.  John Maxwell notes:

Teachability is not so much about competence and mental capacity as it is about attitude. It is the desire to listen, learn, and apply. It is the hunger to discover and grow. It is the willingness to learn, unlearn, and relearn.

When writers feel they’ve learned everything there is to know, they’ve learned nothing.  To make it as a writer, you must remind yourself that tomorrow’s success depends on today’s growth and learning.

Time.

If you have time, you can make it as a writer.  In my school days, I had plenty time to write.  I wrote during math class, science class, and recess; the world was an open notebook, so I carved my own page.  Nowadays the world is a messy piece of scratch paper, riddled with billing addresses, grocery lists, and phone numbers.  Where is the time for passion?  Dr. Seuss wrote:

How did it get so late so soon?  It’s night before it’s afternoon.  December is here before it’s June.  My goodness how the time has flewn.  How did it get so late so soon?

Writers can’t just find time for writing, they must make time for writing.  There is only so much time in the world, and some of that time must be spent writing (It’s where the term writer comes from).

Talent.

If you have talent, you can make it as a writer.  This doesn’t mean your writing must evoke images of Shakespeare and Dickinson’s love-child, but it does mean you should demonstrate potential.  This potential can be a simple self-acknowledgement, but it must come from somewhere.  Anton Chekhov wrote:

There is nothing new in art except talent.

In other words, the art itself is timeless, but new talent makes the art shiny again.  Talent is the most subjective and difficult quality in this list, for it can be developed but seldom learned.  It’s not impossible to acquire talent, but unlike a cold, it’s not very contagious.

Will I Make It As a Writer?

Only you can determine whether you’ll make it as a writer.  It’s your greatest hurdle, and it’s your greatest motivation–the fear of failure, the dream of success.  With tenacity, teachability, time, and talent, you can make it as a writer.  It’s always been your decision to make.

Are You a “Real” Writer?

I’ve written since the age of four.  Back then, my words were penned in crayon, and they vaguely resembled my first and last name (recognizable only because I also drew myself standing beneath the words with a big smile and a cowboy hat).  In those days, writing was an unexplored landscape, a frontier of endless possibilities and glowing hope.  My four-year-old self would have called himself a “real” writer.  Twenty-five years later, I’m not sure I know what that means.

Unless you’re Stephen King or Joyce Carol Oates, it’s likely you’ve doubted your “realness” in the past few years.  With the onslaught of social media and the constant push to develop a “writer’s platform,” it’s become more and more difficult to explain what “real” writing means.  If you’re published, are you a “real” writer?  What about if you’re self-published?  If you have a flash drive full of unread manuscripts but no actual submissions, are you a “real” writer or just someone who writes?

These are tough questions to answer, but somewhere along the way, I figured it out.

What’s Important to You?

In the daily struggle of reading blogs, tweeting, and doubting our own credibility, writers forgot something important about “real” writing:

To be a writer, you have to write.

When stated outright, it seems obvious.  The trouble with this statement is that most writers feel they must do a hundred other things before they’re allowed to enjoy an hour or two of writing.  Sure, there’s a lot of pressure to keep pace with ever-changing trends in the publishing world (I’m looking at you eBooks), but there’s not a lot of pressure where it needs to be, the pressure to actually put your words on the page.  For every word you’ve written on your last creative work, there are five thousand tweets telling you how it should be written.

The new culture around writing distracts writers from the real task of penning great works.  It’s difficult to write a masterpiece when you’re the servant and not the master.  If actual writing is more important to you than the culture of writing, you’re on your way to becoming a “real” writer.

Why Do You Write?

There’s something exciting about the process of writing, something that is sometimes hard to define.  That four-year-old in the cowboy hat sure didn’t have a hard time getting excited by crayon scribbles in a three-ring binder.  We know why we write, but we’re sometimes afraid to respond.  Why can’t we just say…

It helps me relax.
It makes me happy.
It lets me share with the world.
It reveals my inner passion

Writers are all too often ashamed to say that the process itself is rewarding, that money couldn’t buy a single word from the page.  In a world where success is judged by sales figures, it’s no wonder so many writers bury their heads in the sand and keep the laptop in the bag.  Those who never try, never fail.

If you’re excited to write because something inside you demands it, something more than fame and glory, you might be a “real” writer.

When Did Your Love For Writing Begin?

As evidenced by the stack of handwritten stories, poems, and plays stowed away in my mother’s closet, I love writing, and I always have.  This passion grew inside me before I knew anything about money or the “good life.”  Back then, I just wanted to write, even if no one ever saw it but me.  In those days, there was something magical about the pen and the page, something that didn’t require 10,000 followers on Twitter or “Best Seller” splashed across the front cover.

These days, everyone toils away on their individual projects, hoping to break big and publish something worth millions; however, somewhere along the way, our young writer was pushed aside and told that writing for writing’s sake wasn’t worth the trouble.  If you can identify the moment this happened, you will find the moment you first asked yourself, “Am I a real writer?”

When our young writer dies, our old writer becomes senile and can’t remember his name.  He forgets what he learned at four years old, how good it felt to wear a cowboy hat and to call himself a writer.  Looking back, that little guy was the “real-est” writer I’ve known.

The “Real” Deal.

In this day and time, you’re either a “real” writer or you’re no writer at all.  Now grab your cowboy hat, and get back to the page.  The world won’t miss another Twitter post, but they’ll sure miss the next great American novel.

How Do You Know When Your Story’s Finished?

You’ve written for the past five nights, nose to the screen and fingers to the keyboard.  After days, weeks, or months of refining your story, it’s time to face your fears and answer the ultimate question: Is your story finished?

At first glance, this is an easy question for writers to answer.  Surely you’ll know when the final period hits the page whether the story is complete, right?  Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case, and more often than not, writers never quite know when to move from the editing stage to the publishing stage.

Why Does It Matter?

The end result of most creative writing endeavors is to share a polished product with the world (unless you’re Harper Lee, in which case, the end result might be to bury the work for fifty years and hope no one finds it).  With this ultimate goal in mind, it’s important to understand when the writing process is complete, or rather, when it’s time to move to the next step.  There are several methods a writer can use to determine whether it’s time to send a work out the door.

Word Count Increases After Editing.

As most writers are aware, editing a piece of writing means trimming away the fat.  Stephen King famously noted the following:

2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%

This timeless rule provides insight toward determining when a final draft is ready for submission.  Edits usually involve removing portions of the story, so when you find yourself adding words during an edit (usually words that were removed in a previous draft), it’s time to write a cover letter and send your literary baby off to college.

Audible Reading is Smooth.

If you’ve written for awhile, you probably discovered story drafts should be read aloud at least once.  This method allows the writer to fix rhythmic issues and to quickly identify wordiness.  When a writer can audibly read a draft from beginning to end without stumbling, choking, or otherwise crying, it’s okay to stick a fork in it–the writing’s done, and it’s time to enjoy the sweet desserts of publication.

Conflicts are Addressed (Resolved or Unresolved).

The backbone of any compelling work is the conflict within and between characters.  A smart writer identifies all story conflicts and intentionally addresses each.  Not all conflicts must be resolved, but the writer should consider all conflicts and intentionally omit or write a satisfying resolution for each. When all conflicts are addressed, it’s time to say a prayer, stamp the story, and mail it to your favorite literary journal.

Themes are Intentional and Polished.

There are two ways to embed theme in a story: intentionally and unintentionally.  When themes are predetermined (Yes, some writers plan their stories before writing them), several edits are needed to ensure the themes are strengthened through character interactions, plot devices, and conflict.  When themes appear from nowhere (Yes, spontaneous themes occur from time to time), it’s important to strengthen those themes as well, revising the story for consistency within thematic ideas.  When all themes are intentional and polished, it’s time to fold the story into a paper airplane and send it rocketing toward the top of the slush pile.

How Do I Really Know When My Story’s Finished?

You’ll feel it.  When the last sentence breaks your heart for reasons good and bad, you’ll know the story’s finished.  You’ll know it’s time to begin the next great work.